CMS, Novels, and Formal Writing

It’s been a while since I came out with a copyediting post, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the usefulness of The Chicago Manual of Style (henceforth CMS, as it’s known in the industry) for copyediting fiction. CMS is an excellent style guide, and when I edited college textbooks, I relied on it very heavily. Copyeditors–fiction or nonfiction–are usually asked to follow CMS by the managing or production editors who hire them. (These editors ferry books through the production process and hire the freelancers but often don’t read the books all the way through.)

SF/F has a strong genre community, though, and I’m in a somewhat unique position for a copyeditor in that I am a part of this community in which I specialize. I attend SF/F conventions and appear on panels. I talk to authors and editors one-on-one, am friends with many of them, and most people in the genre know who I am. Because I am interested in doing the best job that I can, I speak with authors and editors about my work and about what they expect from a copyedit. What I’ve found, over the years, is that most SF/F editors and authors do not–adamantly do not, in many cases–want copyeditors to apply The Chicago Manual of Style to novels in any kind of rigorous sense at all.

I have no idea if this type of thing is news to the folks who produce CMS. In all, it may not make much difference to them, since, as I noted, copyeditors are usually asked to follow CMS anyway.

Why should there be such a disconnect, though, between what the authors and editors want and what is actually done? (And there isn’t at every publisher, but it certainly is the case at some.) In fiction–unlike nonfiction, in which authors often get significantly less say regarding edits–authors are able to stet (revert) any change they don’t like. If they’re unhappy that the copyeditor followed CMS, then, they can simply stet the changes that bother them. It’s never seemed to me to be in anyone’s best interests for that to have to happen.

I think the reason for the disconnect hit me when I was reading the latest edition of CMS this week, though. In contrast to previous editions (one of which even had a footnote noting that the usage was acceptable), this edition specifically notes that the use of they as a gender-neutral singular (which is ubiquitous in spoken English) is to be avoided: “Many people substitute the plural they and their for the singular he or she. Although they and their have become common in informal usage, neither is considered acceptable in formal writing, so unless you are given guidelines to the contrary, do not use them in a singular sense.”

The critical words in that quotation are formal writing, and I think they illustrate why so many of the authors and editors I’ve spoken with believe that much of CMS isn’t relevant to fiction. Is a novel “formal writing”? Dialogue certainly isn’t–the whole purpose of dialogue is to sound as much like speech as possible; unless one has a character who is a pedant, dialogue is not supposed to sound formal. The same would certainly be said for a first-person novel. Whether any novel at all is “formal,” in fact, seems like a matter for the author and the editor to decide.

I asked SF/F authors on my Facebook and Twitter feeds whether they considered novels to be “formal” writing. A few replied that they thought it would depend upon the novel. Laura Anne Gilman noted, “If by ‘formal’ we mean a standardized voice…oh hell no.” Sarah Prineas said, “I’d take ‘formal’ to mean ‘adhering to all grammar and punctuation rules,’ which would lead me to say no.” Clay Griffith said, “I distinguish novel writing from academic writing, which demands adherence to specific formats such as Chicago Manual.” James Enge made the astute observation, “A novel should be able to include formal styles, but never be enclosed by one.”

For my part, as an experienced copyeditor (and as one with an INTJ personality, who always wants to know, foremost, “Does it work?”), I analyze each book individually rather than apply a style wholesale. While I would never insert they as a singular when an author didn’t use it that way, neither would I alter the usage unless given specific instructions to do so. I feel similarly about many of the rules presented in CMS, and I believe this is part of the reason authors and editors appreciate my work. Fiction, to me, is not “formal writing” in the sense that’s traditionally meant. Authors’ styles and voices are nuanced and delicate and individual and are part of what sells books; it is important to work within those styles in order to avoid damaging them.

Interview with WoW Insider

I’ve mentioned before that I play World of Warcraft. Those of you interested in that side of me might like to check out the interview that WoW Insider’s Lisa Poisso posted with me yesterday. It was a fun interview, and I get to name some of the fiction I think WoW players would find particularly interesting. (I’m sorry to those of my authors and friends I didn’t get to mention, too–it was terribly difficult to pare down the list!)

Copyediting compliments from Ernest Cline, author of Ready Player One

I’m incredibly fortunate in having a job I truly enjoy, and I never feel more so than when I get to copyedit a book that is exciting and touches on my interests and that I find difficult to put down, even though I’m working. When the author of such a book appreciates my work and takes the time to tell me so, it makes me happier than I can describe.

As a wonderful way to round out 2010 and begin 2011, author Ernest Cline, whose first novel Ready Player One I got to copyedit, sent me such an e-mail, which he has given me permission to quote here:

I finished going over your copyedits today and am writing to tell you how much I appreciate the work you did on my book!

In addition to finding a gazillion typos and grammatical errors that everyone else had missed, your notes and queries were fantastic! They raised all sorts of logical questions that had never occurred to me, and I’m very thankful to you for pointing them out, so that I could address them before the book goes out to the world. I feel incredibly lucky to have had someone with a gamer’s eye for detail copyedit my book. You really did an amazing job, and I hope that I’m lucky enough to work with you again in future.

I honestly loved Ready Player One and encourage you to check it out when you can. (The book is due out from Crown in summer 2011, and the movie rights have sold to Warner Brothers.) It’s a futuristic science fiction novel that’s also chock-full of awesome old-school geekery and was a pleasure to work on.

Words and sounds

I often become enamored of certain words I see while copyediting, and the latest comes from China Miéville’s novel Embassytown, which I’m working on now: panjandrum.

I love it when the sound of a word and its meaning match up so well. Panjandrum was coined by the dramatist Samuel Foote, which is undoubtedly how it gained that effect.

What are your favorite words with meanings and sounds that match well? Bonus if they’re neither coined nor onomatopoeic.

In my Twitter feed so far we have vexing, splendid, mellifluous, short, appetence, quirk, and melancholy. #wordgeekery

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

I spent a glorious afternoon yesterday hiking in the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and took photos until my camera ran out of battery power.

I’m unfortunately not the best photographer in the world, but I did get a few good shots, like the ones below, and the refuge itself is a gorgeous place. You can view the whole album here if you’d like.

I hope all of you also had beautiful weekends.

Renovation WorldCon

So I know it’s early for the question I’m about to ask, but I’m turning a significant number of years old next year (45, as a matter of fact) and would like to celebrate the occasion with my friends in the genre. To that end, I’m thinking of planning a birthday party at next year’s WorldCon in Reno. (I had my 40th at ReaderCon, and that was great fun.)

So I wonder if I could get a headcount on those of you going to Renovation next year who might want to help me celebrate. I’d have quite a lot of planning to do, as I don’t actually care for room parties and ideally need to think of something else, so I’d love a preliminary notion of where to start, number-wise. :)


Would you like to see a picture of the gator that was sunning at the pond near my house today? I often see gators and a variety of birds when I’m out unicycling. (I’ve been riding about three miles a day lately!) He was about five feet, I think–not the biggest I’ve seen, but not tiny, either.

And here’s a close-up. Lovely, friendly-looking guy, isn’t he?

Veterans Day

I’ve been thinking about losses today–mine and those of other families.

My dad, whom I miss so much, died at 56 from cancer caused by the Agent Orange he was exposed to in Vietnam–he worked on planes that sprayed it. Several of my uncles also served in that war.

My mom’s dad fought in WWII and couldn’t talk about it for crying.

My husband was deployed twice–once when our daughter was less than two, and once when she was five, and our son a toddler.

I support our veterans; I often don’t support the governmental decision to spend their lives, or have them take others’ lives, or the policies that leave them at risk when they come home. We can do better.

Missing email

Hi, all. I wanted to let you know that I just last night discovered the existence of a web-based spam filter on my email. Because I never use web-based email, I had no idea that my ISP had it in place. The filter was deleting mail every month, and when I discovered it yesterday, there were four valid emails in it, which is vastly frustrating. I have no idea how many emails I may have lost over the last few years.

If you have tried to contact me in the last few years and have received no reply or acknowledgment, please accept my apologies. I believe I have the filter turned off now, and I will try to be very proactive about replying to any email I get so that you will know you’re getting through.

I hope you’re all doing well.

Fake Facebook profiles (featuring China Miéville)

EDIT: Facebook has now removed the fake profiles. Really, this was a ridiculous amount of trouble for China to have to go through, though, and he reports that he has still never heard from Facebook about it.

Hello, all. I realize I haven’t been blogging much lately. Truthfully, I’ve found myself hanging out more on Twitter and Facebook these days, though I miss the depth blogging offers. Facebook’s privacy issues will almost certainly drive me away eventually, and perhaps I’ll come back to blogging regularly then.

We probably all have friends who’ve never been drawn to social media in the first place, though, and we’re pretty much aware of who they are. What do you do, then, when such a friend–especially if they’re well-known–shows up as a “Suggested Friend” in your Facebook feed? Well, if you’re me, you write to ask if it’s really them before you add them to your list. This exact scenario happened to me a few months ago with what turned out to be a fake Facebook profile claiming to be China Miéville. I’ve copyedited China for close to a decade now, and I was able to verify in short order that he was not actually on Facebook.

Now Twitter has “Verified Accounts,” but Facebook does not. (A glance through the friend list of the fake China profile reveals several other accounts that are known or likely fakes, and it’s not improbable to suppose that the same person is running them all.) The lack of verification in itself is a problem, but it is compounded by the fact that the strategies Facebook offers to people who are being impersonated are ineffective, at best. In order to report that a profile is fake, for instance, the person being impersonated has to have a real profile on Facebook, which seems utterly ludicrous; and for those who are opposed to having Facebook profiles for any reason, it is obviously a problem. [EDIT: Facebook is now giving the option to report a profile even if the person being impersonated does not have a Facebook account. This is a positive change.] China reported the fake profile to the extent that he was able, but it remained unchanged.

In the meantime, another not-China profile with China’s name popped up, and he finally took the step of writing a letter to Facebook, which he has given me permission to reprint below. He would like this information to be disseminated as widely as possible so that people know he does not have a Facebook profile.

1601 S. California Avenue
Palo Alto
CA 94304
6 October 2010

Dear Facebook People,


1) The short version:

At least one person, if not more, is/are impersonating me on Facebook, with (a) fake profile(s) claiming my identity. Despite me repeatedly bringing this to your attention, you have taken no action to remedy the situation. And I’m getting very annoyed.

2) The full version:

This thing you hold is called a letter. This is the third time I’ve contacted you, and I’m doing so by this antiquated method because, and I realise this may shock you so brace yourself, I have no Facebook account. Which means it is nigh-on impossible for me to get in touch with you. Kudos for your Ninja avoidance strategies.

Back when you had a button allowing me to alert you to a fake profile despite not having an account myself, I contacted you that way. I was answered with a resonant silence. Subsequently, when the problem persisted, I hunted lengthily for, found and left a message on the phone number you go out of your way to hide. Absolutely nothing happened. So here we go again: third time’s a charm.

I am being imitated on Facebook. I believe the only reason anyone is bothering to do this is because I’m a novelist (published by Macmillan and Random House), a writer and broadcaster, with a minor public profile. I think there are one or two community pages about my stuff on Facebook – that of course is very flattering and nice of people to bother. The problem is that there is or are also pages by someone(s) purporting to be me. This is weird and creepy. What’s worse is I know for a fact that some readers, friends and colleagues are friending ‘China Miéville’ under the impression that it is me, and that others are wondering why ‘China Miéville’ refuses to respond to them. And I have no idea what dreadful things or ‘likes’ or ‘dislikes’ are being claimed as mine, nor what ‘I’ am saying.

I know lots of people enjoy being on Facebook. Great. More power to them. Vaya con Dios. Me, though: not my thing. I have absolutely no interest in it. I am not now nor have I ever been a Facebook member. Short of some weird Damascene moment, I will not ever join Facebook – and if that unlikely event occurs, I promise I’ll tell you immediately. In the meantime, though, as a matter of urgency, as a matter of courtesy, as a matter of decency, please respond to my repeated requests:

Please delete all profiles claiming to be me (with or without the accent on the ‘é’ – last time I looked, I found one ‘China Mieville’, and one more accurately rendered).
Please do not allow anyone else to impersonate me. I have neither time nor inclination to trawl your listings regularly to see if another bizarre liar has sprung up.
• And while you’re at it, please institute a system whereby those of us with the temerity not to sign up to your service can still contact you on these matters and actually get a [insert cuss-word] answer.

I appeal to you to honour your commitments to security and integrity. Of course as a multi-gajillion-dollar company I have absolutely no meaningful leverage over you at all. If David Fincher’s film doesn’t embarrass you, you’re hardly going to notice the plaintive whining of a geek like me. All I can do is go public. Which is my next plan.

I’m allowing a week for this letter to reach you by airmail, then three days for you to respond to me by phone or the email address provided. Then, if I’ve heard nothing, on 16 October 2010, I’ll send copies of this message to all the literary organizations and publications with which I have connections

some of the many books bloggers I know; and anyone else I can think of. I’ll encourage them all to publicise the matter. I’m tired of being impersonated, and I’m sick of you refusing to answer me.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,
China Miéville

Now I have a question for you. After the first China impersonator popped up, I posted on Facebook and Tweeted that the profile was a fake. In some cases, with people I knew, I even went so far as to contact them directly, because I already had many mutual friends with the profile at that point. Most of those I contacted unfriended the fake profile, but not all of them did, and I have to say that I just do not understand the mentality. Why would you want an impersonator having access to information about you and your friends? Are you thinking? I unfriended all the “mutual friends” who remained.
Please do let others know about this issue. China wants people to know that he is not and never intends to be on Facebook, and I’m sure he is not the only person affected.